Nativity of Our Lord B
God’s love and the gift of hope and salvation have come to us in the person of Jesus Christ. And that child has come for you. Even if you can’t believe or imagine that such a gift of grace and love belongs to you, he still comes for you.
The Good News of God and the news that we see on television, the internet, the radio, or the newspaper use very different headlines and talk about very different people. In Luke’s Gospel, he situates the story of the birth of Jesus during the reign of Emperor Augustus who can force hundreds of thousands of people to pick up their lives and travel to their hometowns for a census. He says a word and hundreds of thousands of people obey his desire. That is a person of considerable power and influence.
The news we consume follows people of great power and influence as well. We constantly see headlines about movers and shakers like Emperor Augustus. We hear about President Obama, Vladmir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Taylor Swift, and George Clooney. These are people who with just a word can influence or command thousands, if not millions of people.
We don’t see headlines about unwed, teenage mothers like Mary. We don’t see headlines about poor carpenters like Joseph. And we certainly don’t see headlines about the babies that are born to such people. This Christmas story tells us that God shows up in the most unlikely, ordinary places. More than that, God shows up in despised and shameful places. What could be more lowly than an unwed, teenage mother and her poor carpenter fianceé having a baby in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem?
But that’s how God works in this story. The headline of God’s Good News story is “Unwed, teenage mother with her poor carpenter fianceé, gives birth to the Son of God in a manger.”
The surprises don’t end there. This incredible, unbelievable news is first announced to shepherds. We may have romantic ideas of who shepherds were- imagining them as old, gentle men with long beards surrounded by cotton-puff sheep, but that is not the reality of 1st century shepherds in Palestine.
First of all, they were dirty and smelly. They were out for days at a time tending to animals. They probably smelled like a mixture of sheep feces and sweat. They were tough- fighting off animals who sought to prey on the sheep and fighting off ruffians who sought to prey on the shepherd. They were also poor. Being a shepherd was not a desired profession. It was likely something that you did because you had little choice or no other choice. Last, shepherds were despised by others, because of their semi-nomadic lifestyle. They traveled from field to field with their sheep and had a reputation for being untrustworthy liars and thieves.
A shepherd’s testimony was invalid in a court of law. If one or five shepherds witnessed one person robbing another and they gave their testimony to a judge, the defendant could merely remind the judge that the witnesses were shepherds.
The shepherds were a people discarded by their neighbors. Their neighbors believed that shepherds were undeserving of any respect or love and it is very likely that the shepherds themselves stopped hoping for any kind of respect or love. They lived in the darkness so long that they lost hope of finding the light. They would rather have their eyes adjust to the darkness than hope in the light.
The Roma or Gypsies in Europe have a similar plight to the 1st century shepherds of Palestine. In a similar way, they have been branded by their neighbors as untrustworthy liars and thieves due to their nomadic lifestyle or the nomadic lifestyle of their ancestors. They suffer great prejudice and hardship even today. Many Roma are deeply impoverished because they cannot find an unprejudiced employer. They struggle to provide food, shelter, and warmth to their family. They are not afforded the same educational opportunities as their non-Roma sisters and brothers.
Suzanna, a Roma mother in Slovakia, has lost hope. She has been wandering in the darkness so long that she cannot imagine what the world would look like in the light. She is a single mother of three. Her husband has been arrested and her parents live in another country trying to have a better life for themselves. She has given up believing in her neighbors, herself, and even God. She says, “Only God knows what troubles I have. I go to bed with my children and I pray. The church believes that Go can help, but I’m not so sure. If I would pray the whole day, the children wouldn’t have food… If I sit here and pray, there will be no change.”
Suzanna, the Roma, and the shepherds live in a reality where they cannot imagine light overcoming the darkness of their lives. But God came to the shepherds with full angelic chorus to announce peace on Earth. Even though the shepherds could not imagine a light to their darkness, God came to them and brought it anyway. We too live in darkness, but the story of Christmas is that a light has come to us. Whether we feel it, believe it, or can even imagine it, God has come to illumine our darkness through the Christ child.
Our world appears to be surrounded in darkness and there are times when we can’t imagine light illumining it. Young, black men fear police violence. Police fear violence from those they are charged to protect. Those fears are painfully well founded given the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Rafael Ramos, and Wenjian Liu.
Our personal worlds may be surrounded in darkness and we can’t imagine a light powerful enough to illumine it. We may be grieving the death of a loved one or struggling to keep up with the demands placed on us to provide for ourselves and our families.
But God comes to you in the person of the Christ child. Even when we have lost hope in our neighbors, ourselves, or God, God still comes to us bearing the gifts of peace, joy, and love. Even if we can’t imagine receiving such a gift, God comes to us. Just as God brought this Good News to the shepherds who were among the least likely to believe that such an incredible gift belongs to them, God brings this Good News to us.